September 11, 2021
While traveling to our Phoenix Cruiser Travel Club reunion in Spearfish, SD, we stopped in the little town of Deer Lodge, MT. That’s where you’ll find the little known but fascinating Grant-Kohrs National Historic Site.
If you visit this site you’d learn that all the movies and TV shows you watched as a kid were wrong. Cattle ranchers, cattle ranching, cattle drives, cowboys, and ranch hands were nothing like what you saw on the big and little screens. Big surprise, huh?
John Francis Grant emigrated from Canada and, in 1862, selected this site for his ranch. Four years later he sold it to Conrad Kohrs, a German immigrant. Conrad initially grew his herd by trading one of his healthy cows to settlers heading west for two of their trail-worn ones. Over the years this open range ranch grew to 50,000 head of cattle roaming over 10 million acres of land spread across four states and two Canadian Provinces.
Get ready for a shock… Cowboys did not look or act like John Wayne! In fact about one-fourth were Black, many were Hispanic and American Indian, and the rest White Americans and Europeans. They weren’t old and grizzled men either. Cowboys began their training when they were in their early teens, reached their prime in their 20s, and were done before they hit 30. The average age was 25.
The good times on the open range didn’t last. By 1886 there were over one million cattle in Montana where overgrazing severely impacted the grasslands.
The devastating winter of 1886-1887 caused a staggering loss of up to 90% of a northern plains rancher’s cattle. Kohrs’s lost about 50% of his, not bad considering.
Ranchers could no longer rely solely on grasslands to support their cattle. They had to find another way. Slowly, ranchers transitioned to a combination of open range and farming. Ranchers began to grow and store hay to feed their cattle.
Because of the dry climate, ranchers could store their hay on massive haystacks weighing up to 25 tons. The beaverslide haystacker was one clever invention that let them do that. I watched a video that showed how hay was cut, raked to the base of the haystacker, pulled up the incline, and dropped through the gap at the top. Pretty neat.
Further improvements in feed, breeding, and veterinary care changed the way ranches were operated. The need for cowboys fell dramatically. A romanticized way of life ground to a halt.
The ranch stayed in the Kohrs’s family until the National Park Service acquired the site in 1970, agreeing to manage it as a living ranch.